Despite years of transition, Philadelphia is still a city of neighborhoods. South Philadelphia, Germantown, Brewerytown, Fishtown, Eastwick, and Strawberry Mansion are just a few of the neighborhoods that give the city its distinctive and diverse feel. One of its most unique areas lies within Center City. It stretches from Arch to Vine Street, and from 8th to 11th Street. Pass through the “Friendship Gate” at 10th and Arch Streets and you will find yourself in Chinatown.
Philadelphia’s Chinatown, like those in other American cities, has sad beginnings. Chinese immigrants came to America seeking refuge from political upheavals and economic woes. They encountered a veritable wall of racism in the form of the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882, which severely restricted immigration. This act created a “bachelor society” of male laborers, many of whom gathered in small, ethnic enclaves. These men found limited job opportunities and suffered from money shortages because they often had to support families back home.
Chinese Americans’ social standing improved during World War II when the United States softened its anti-Chinese views. The country redirected its vilification of the Chinese onto the Japanese, although many Americans had difficulty differentiating between the two ethnic groups. In 1943, the U. S. government repealed the Chinese Exclusionary Act and began to allow the increased, but still restricted, entry of Chinese into the country.
Family and community life in Philadelphia’s Chinatown expanded after World War II. Numerous churches, businesses, and social and cultural institutions opened in the area, further reinforcing the presence of native traditions. Once decried as a red-light district, full of opium dens and other iniquities, Chinatown became a stable neighborhood. Beginning in the 1960s, a “Save Chinatown” campaign resisted proposed developments that would have demolished Holy Redeemer Church and School, as well as other buildings. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) was incorporated in 1969. Drawing on the support of neighborhood, the PCDC fought a successful two-decade battle to prevent the Vine Expressway from severely encroaching upon the community. More recently, the organization won a contentious battle to prevent the construction of the new Phillies stadium on the edge of Chinatown.
When walking in Chinatown, one feels a sense of being in a city within a city. Ten thousand Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese people now reside there. Asian-owned restaurants, markets, and other establishments abound. Chinatown began as a closed-off refuge for young, displaced immigrants. Today it retains its distinctive Far Eastern flavor while serving as an open, proud, and indispensable part of the Philadelphia landscape.
- “Philadelphia Chinatown Wins Stadium Fight.” AsianWeek.com. November 24-30, 2000. http://www.asianweek.com/2000_11_24/news1_nophillieschinatown.html (accessed August 17, 2006).
- “Philadelphia’s Chinatown: An Overview.” The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. http://www.hsp.org/default.aspx?id=190 (accessed August 18, 2006).